Shattered Lives: Another Siran Seza Discovery


A sense of doom almost governs the lives of the characters in Siran Seza’s Shattered Lives (Yearbook, Inc. 2015), a novel set in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) during World War I.

“The tears that secretly shed in the dark,” “the crown of thorns” and “the huge wooden cross” of the dedication “To My Armenian Sisters” set the tone. The Armenian word djagadakir, which may sound more ominous than fate, its English counterpart, is repeatedly evoked. The love of the protagonist Alina Martenian, the delicate “little girl” with “a pair of melancholic eyes above pale cheeks,” for the aspiring teacher Ared Vartian ends tragically. Two young lives are shattered because Alina’s father would not allow his daughter, used to the social advantages and the privileges that come with being born into an affluent family, to marry a “poor man.”

“My life will remain shattered forever,” confides Alina to her diary.

There is, nonetheless, the goodness and the beauty of the souls that provide balm for the characters’ misery. The kind family doctor nurses the fragile youngster back to life, several times. Alina’s cousin, Arsham, supports the devastated girl for whom he cares for deeply.

A key ingredient of the novel is Alina’s endless pondering over the misery of life. Why don’t adults want youngsters to be happy, she wonders. And if, as she believes, it is “so much easier to love than to hate,” why do people choose to hate? Is it destiny or society and its restrictions that causes the misery? The outspoken protagonist questions the unfair laws that govern the behavior of men and women. Her musings inevitably bring to mind the young author who, years later, would publish the pioneering literary journal The Young Armenian Woman to advocate for a woman’s rights and her independence. Why should a woman always be dependent on a father or a brother, asks Alina. Can a woman divorce and restart her life just as a man can? Yet, “I do not like feminism,” asserts the gentle girl. “For me a woman is always the same soft and gentle sensitive being.”

Thus, the novel does not exhort a specific ideology.

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Seza yearns for a world that can accommodate the sincerity, purity and innocence of Alina and her peers. Hers is a vision of a world with its own spiritual energy and moral laws that transcend “the evil laws of men,” to borrow Alina’s words.

Shattered Lives pleads for a world without the bargains and the hypocrisies of a society where women “sell themselves” in marriage. Alina loves Ared with the “undeniable eternal law of love.” Even if the purity of her feelings destines her to suffering and to pain, and traditions ultimately win, her “I want to love” is what makes life desirable. Seza creates enormous sympathy for her protagonist, who may sometimes be spoiled and capricious, yet is never mean or condescending. Alina is all goodness and kindness. “My good Anna,” whispers “the little girl” to the overjoyed maid as she impulsively hugs her and kisses her “dark cheeks.”

This world of integrity the novel evokes is inextricably connected to Seza’s passion for everything Armenian. Her heroine is ready to sacrifice all she has for a free homeland. Deep in her heart, Alina knows that her people will reemerge from the ashes. The orphans she volunteers to teach “promised an amazing new generation. . . The Turks had not been able to kill their spirit.”

Yet the pain lingers. In a city evoked throughout as “the most beautiful corner of the world,” nature is mournful in its beauty. The bright sunshine is short-lived. The glorious sunset of Scutari is Alina’s connection with her absent loved ones. “The mournful whistle of the steamship” transporting soldiers to the Black Sea and “the melancholy call of the Muezzin” sadden the feeble girl. Chopin, George Sand, Alfred de Musset and The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe are ever-present. Yet the world of the novel is not a depressing or a disheartening world. Indeed, Shattered Lives gives us a glimpse into a world where the possibility of happiness exists, even if the inhabitants of its fictional world do not have it. Paradoxically, dreams bring back the desire to live, just as life destroys those dreams. Alina will never cease to believe in “the miracle of love.”

With remarkable skill Seza depicts war in all of its destructiveness. In elegant naturally flowing prose, she gives expression to the despondency over an endless war.  With her portrayal of the Martenian family’s 1917 New Year’s Eve she contrasts a whole past of abundance, of joy and of family closeness with a present full of disruptions. Alina mourns the plight of her people and weeps for the Armenian soldiers who have to fight for the glory of bloodthirsty sultans. The massacres are always in the background. The oversensitive girl cries for absent loved ones. With her vivid images Seza reveals a whole inner world of feelings. The spark of Ared and Alina’s fingers touching and separating is palpable.

An interesting strategy is the interweaving of entries from Alina’s diary into the narrative. Even if these at times create some repetition, as when Alina recalls a scene that has already been described in the narrative, they provide much insight into the sensitive girl’s innermost feelings.

Seza wrote the novel in 1924 when she was only 21, but it was not published during her life. Shattered Lives was published in 2015, in Los Angeles. In 2014, another of her novels, The Book of Genesis, which she had written later in life, was published. These publications, along with the ongoing publication of her Letters, are part of a project to bring out Seza’s rich literary legacy, still in manuscript form.

Finally, a tidbit I would like to share: Recently, and quite accidentally, I came across the poem “To the Little, Pretty Girl” written by Seza’s real-life brother, the poet Mateos Zarifian. The sorrowful tone of the poem evoked for me the melancholic “little girl” of the novel.

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